Collectivism 2.0, and the Future of Western Civilization
Bill Clinton remarked in a fairly recent interview that the last great taboo in society is ‘that we can’t stand people who disagree with us’.
Stateside, bemused bystanders are witnessing increasingly bizarre confrontations on college campuses, largely initiated by ultra-progressive activists, against political opponents whose speech, they believe, represents a threat to the identity of marginalized groups.
The rhetoric and methods of these activists certainly deserves questioning, particularly as it appears to be taking the form of law.
The philosophy behind the activism is tied up with a belief that Western society is irredeemably corrupt and exists exclusively as a means of shoring up white male privilege. The problem with this view is also what makes it persuasive — it has elements of truth, and is easier to process mentally than the more nuanced reality.
While a supporter of free speech, I am more worried about the nascent philosophy of Western supremacism among the opponents of the radical progressives.
The Western supremacist view is a newly resurgent phenomenon and seldom articulated explicitly. It is not a term anyone would willingly embrace, although so far as I can see, there is nothing fundamentally sinister about it. Unlike neo-Marxists, Nazis or white supremacists, Western supremacists do not ascribe value to ethnicity per se.
They point to the historical dominance of the West, note the more defining characteristics of its laws and customs, and infer that they are causally intertwined. The proponents are liberal-minded, learned and sincere.
You see the position set out in the writings of the Brexiteer Daniel Hannan in his book ‘Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World’. You can hear it in the eloquent orations of Dr. Jordan Peterson, one of the Anglosphere’s most articulate defenders of free speech.
Particularly in the case of Peterson, the supremacist position seems to hinge on the divinity of the individual, and the evils of collectivism.
Legally, this manifests itself amongst other things in the English common law, wherein it is assumed that the individual possesses every right, as opposed to these rights being vouchsafed by the government (as in the civil law systems such as the Napoleonic code).
It seems to be a natural counterpoint to the ethno-centric arguments of the cultural Marxists, who allege group guilt and demand group privilege purely on the basis of group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. All backed up, in invisible parentheses, by a government with the power to punish disobedience swiftly and with only the most perfunctory observance of due process.
The Western supremacists may be right in whom they choose to oppose. But this alone does not validate their position. And this is my point: there is a fundamental problem with the elevation of Western values to the summit of human achievement.
In the first place, Western civilization owes its soul, if not its laws, to the Judeo-Christian values that come — whichever way you look at it — from the Middle East.
In the second place, the West has created its own nemesis in the postmodernist intellectuals of the 1970s, who set out to dismantle the cultural underpinnings of Western society.
It is difficult to see how a civilization that is nourished from without and eats itself from within has earned an unimpeachable independent status from which to condescend to all other civilizations.
What, then, is the problem?
Perhaps it is the assumption that collectivism is an inherent evil.
There is a game that economists like to play. A group of individuals are each given five dollars, and told to decide how much of it to donate to a central fund. They are told that whatever is placed in this central fund will be doubled, and the results distributed equally to the group.
The economist, often with a knowing grin, will tell you that the optimal strategy for a given individual is to donate nothing.
The individualist reasons as follows when justifying the decision to donate nothing: there is no apparent downside (you lose nothing), but there is potential gain (maximally, if everyone else donates the full five dollars).
The problem with this strategy is that in a society in which the ‘donate nothing’ strategy is perceived to be optimal, no one benefits. And in the long-term everyone loses.
What the economists miss, is that the strategy that brings most benefit to the individual in the long term is one in which all members of the group donate five dollars, and receive ten dollars in return, repeatedly, game after game.
For this behavior to persist, each individual must have a belief that it is ultimately in his / her own interests to serve the group.
So, let’s imagine a table with two axes.
One describes the values of the people within a society: individualist (maximize personal gain) versus collectivist (maximize gain for the group).
The other describes the how the actions of the people are governed: voluntary (each individual determines his / her own actions) versus compelled (a centralized government has the responsibility of regulating actions of individuals).
Historically, we can see that compelled collectivism has not succeeded in the case of large countries who have attempted to achieve it.
In the West, we are seeing the endgame of individualism, which is placed under greatest pressure during times of economic contraction.
That leaves only the final quadrant: bottom-up or voluntary collectivism. Is this anarchist utopia? If so, we would be justified in crossing it off the list.
But happily, there is a real example of voluntary collectivism that we can turn to.
Another way of expressing ‘voluntary collectivism’ is the phrase ‘Hongik Ingan’ (one person [voluntarily] lives for the benefit of all), the founding philosophy of Korea.
Korea is a country in which the average height has grown consistently since the 1960s. As someone once pointed out to me, average height is a far better indicator than GDP / capita, if one is interested in finding out how a country as a whole is benefiting from economic growth. Unlike GDP / capita, it cannot be skewed by extreme outliers at the upper end.
In the crucial early days of the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of the economic growth came from ordinary people working 16 hour days on national projects such as Hyundai’s first shipyard or POSCO’s first steelworks. Here you saw what happened when each individual donated ‘the full 5 dollars’. The gain to individuals was not immediate, but in the longer-term returned via the group (i.e. the Korean economy).
Meanwhile in England, shipyard workers were striking (donating zero dollars) with a view to preserving personal gains. The increases in pay they achieved were immediate, but in the longer-term the shipyards all closed down (eventually, people who donate zero spend their five dollars and run out of money).
More recently, we see the examples of Koreans voluntarily donating personal heirlooms to the country’s banks following the Asian Financial crisis, standing in line to do so. Again, the full five dollars went in, and the country has more than made up for lost ground, expanding its economic and cultural influence in East Asia and increasingly the world at large, beyond the predictions of any economist.
I would encourage all of us in the West, supremacists and deconstructionists alike, to entertain the possibility that there might be something better than compelled collectivism and voluntary individualism, and that this ‘something better’ is to be found outside the tramlines of traditional Western thought.
I’d also like to encourage Koreans to be aware of what a gift they have in their culture, and to conserve it so that it can be shared with other civilizations on the brink of tearing themselves apart.